We know it’s hardly a case that needs to be made, but there’s much more to Mexican Hot Chocolate than just adding cinnamon. There are many reasons it merits a distinction.
At Artelexia, we carefully source products from vendors that are elevating the chocolate caliente drinking game. Here’s what makes them so good, and so....Mexican.
When it comes to Mexico’s culinary offerings, there is no shortage of superlatives: the best street food, the finest spirits, and the sweetest (and spiciest) treats. It helps that in most cases — from tacos to tequila — there is, simply put, no other competition. The country’s gastronomy is so unique to its geography, history and traditions, that other countries struggle to even remotely replicate the most popular Mexican dishes. But there is one drink so ubiquitous, yet so varied in source and style, of which the Mexican variety is worth taking a closer look at: hot chocolate.
To understand what makes it unique, you have to know how other countries are sipping it. In Spain, for example, hot chocolate is more of a dip than a drink, thickened with starches. The French chocolat chaud is more like a melted Ghirardelli bar and, like Spain, uses refined chocolate. Some Latin American countries (from Central America to Colombia) drink Mexican Hot Chocolate without calling it as such, though it is the same recipe and style that was popularized by and in Mexico. In the U.S. and some European countries, hot cocoa of the Swiss Miss variety (topped with marshmallows) use cocoa powder rather than cacao. And that’s what makes the difference.
Mexican Hot Chocolate mixes ground cacao nibs, hot water or milk, sugar, and spices — particularly, cinnamon. As it is usually homespun using a wooden molinillo and ceramic chocolatero, it is delightfully grainy, with the ground cacao settling at the bottom. It is traditionally enjoyed with a bolillo, or white baguette-like bread, which is used to dip and absorb every last bit of the grounds.
But for Mexicans, chocolate caliente is far more than a drink. There’s an emotional valence to the whole experience of consuming it, which often evokes memories of home, family, and seasonal convenings such as posadas. For some, it may really just be the kick of extra spices that characterize it. But to say that it is a national source of pride and warmth is an understatement (it even came to be a literary reference for lust — Como Agua Para Chocolate, anyone?!) And Mexicans aren’t just adding a demonym to claim it as their own. The ingredients, the method, and the style can all be traced back to Mexico’s cacao growing regions and how history allowed its consumption to evolve. Here’s what it boils down to:
The cacao tree thrives in tropical climates, which is why the Mexican states of Tabasco and Chiapas in the southeast account for 70% and 29% of cacao production in the country, respectively. This relatively narrow but fertile geographic growth range may explain why Mesoamerican civilizations (particularly the Olmecs, Mayans, and Aztecs) found so many common — and varied — uses for it. A common staple for these ancient cultures, this was the first documentedcultivation and domestication of the cacao plant. Though there is a debate to be settled here. Until recently, the cacao bean was thought to have originated in México. A 2006 archeological study contradicted this common belief when tiny remnants of cocoa were found in ceramic pottery in the Ecuadorian Amazon dating back to 5,000 years ago. But we’re making the case about its use and not its origin. And while the southern hemisphere can take away our origin story, they certainly won’t take away our style.
Mexicans have long had a flair for turning cacao into a delicacy. For example, Mesoamerican civilizations ground cacao on a metate (a stone tool) and made it into a paste, which likely made it easy to incorporate into dishes that later came to be known as modern-day mole. It was also enjoyed as a drink as early as this time, though with some differences — the Mayans liked it hot, the Aztecs liked it cold, and it was likely mixed with other crops such as corn. It served as currency for some, and as medicine to others. Considered a gift from the gods by the Aztecs, it was even used for sacrificial purposes. Then along came the Spanish, and as you know, they took more than they brought. But what they brought also transformed what they took: in this case, native additives (corn, peppers) were removed from original chocolate drink recipes and replaced with milk, sugar, cinnamon, and sometimes nuts. They loved it and then they took this gift to share with a big part of the rest of the world. And there you have it, an abridged history of how Mexican Hot Chocolate came to be!
Of course, the story of Mexican hot chocolate is incomplete without talking about chocolate Abuelita and Ibarra, present-day industry giants that became and remain household favorites. Capitalizing on the popularity of the beverage, these brands and their products gradually lowered the quality of its ingredients in order to maximize production and profit as they sold out to transnational companies. While they may fill a void and are very accessible, they use more sugar and artificial flavors than cacao. We’re not trying to shame you if Abuelita and/or Ibarra are your thing. But we do want to take the opportunity to put in a plug for our favorite Mexican Hot Chocolate products at Artelexia, all of which make for great alternatives while honoring the original popularized recipe as much as the Mexican producers who are stirring it up.
Villa Real has been making vegan artisanal chocolate in Zaachila, Oaxaca since 2008. Villa Real partners with family-owned businesses to source their ingredients, which are simply cocoa butter, sugar, almond, and other nuts and spices. It is low in sugar and thus reviewers enjoy that they can modify sweetness to their liking. Their chocolate para mesa comes in tablets neatly packed into a rustic sack, and you can enjoy at least three different varieties: dark chocolate, vanilla flavored, and with a hint of almond.
First things first, Hernán won a Sofie — an “Oscar” in the food industry — in 2012. This Latinx and woman-owned business sources their organic cacao straight from Chiapas. Hernán prides itself on being ethically sourced, rich in anti-oxidants, and true to the Mexican origin story even in its design. It is available in different forms: powder, pellets, and tablets or discs. Try the con café flavor to put a spin on your morning coffee, or enjoy the traditional con canela. Also, read this if you’re interested in learning about Hernán’s trail blazing founder and the story behind the business (and where it’s going).
Listed by the L.A. Times as one of "The 4 Places in LA to Find Great Mexican Hot Chocolate", La Monarca takes the name of the butterfly known for its annual transnational migration. This matters because they partner with Ecolife Conversation to support preservation efforts, showing a deep commitment to not only their chocolate’s, but of the butterfly’s place of origin (Mexico).
Their Mexican Hot Chocolate is made with organic, fair trade cacao that has been ground in-house and blended with their exclusive recipe. Another favorite is the Champurrado, a chocolate-based atole made with corn flour, sugar, and spices.
A plus? Pair the hot chocolate or champurrado with with La Monarca’s famous cinnamon and wedding cookies or orejitas(butter palmiers).
Whichever one you decide to try, put your spin on it! And we don’t just mean use the molinillo (if you choose to). Add your favorite spices, replace milk with water or a dairy alternative, or try fun and bold flavor variations, like the chile guajillo by Taza. Finally, for the pour, don’t forget to accessorize with one of our popular stoneware mugs.